Most of Jason Kenney’s reforms won’t fix democracy in Alberta — and one of them is incredibly detrimental
After months of speculation about whether his United Conservative Party would actually present a specific and detailed platform in advance of the upcoming Alberta election, Jason Kenney responded on Valentine’s Day by calling a news conference to release a suite of proposed democratic reforms that will form part of his campaign.
Not surprisingly, at the core of Kenney’s proposed reforms are standard right-wing hobby horses like provisions for MLA recall, more free votes, senate elections, and fixed election dates.
Kenney’s proposal for recall is modeled on the existing recall legislation in British Columbia, which states that beginning 18 months after an election any sitting MLA can be removed from office if 40 percent of electors in a constituency sign a recall petition.
It is worth noting that despite B.C. having this legislation in place since 1991 no MLA has ever been recalled. Ultimately, recall legislation tends to present a nice nod to populism, but does very little to further democracy or citizen engagement.
Likewise, this goes with the idea of fixed election dates. The theory is that not having a set date for when elections will happen provides the government in power with a significant advantage in that they can choose to call the election when best suits their electoral prospects.
The reality, however, is that what gives sitting governments an advantage is rarely timing, but rather the ability to schedule significant funding and program announcements in the lead-up to an election. A fixed election date won’t change that ability, and actually makes possible the dynamic we see in the United States where two years before an election parties become more focused on campaigning than legislating.
Kenney’s release states that under a UCP government free votes would be mandated for anything that wasn’t an explicit matter of financial confidence or a part of the platform. This is another move that sounds great in theory but falls apart in practice as parties will still encourage their MLAs to vote a certain way on touchy subjects.
An interesting case in point is the UCP itself when the legislature was debating a bill that would enhance the ability of women to exercise their reproductive rights free from harassment and intimidation.
Despite a long-standing parliamentary convention allowing free votes on matters of conscience, Jason Kenney ordered his entire caucus to simply walk out of the legislature over and over again rather than allow them to vote either way on the bill or on numerous proposed amendments.
The policy would also ban MLAs from switching parties without a by-election, prohibit governing parties from using government funds for partisan advertising, and prohibit desk-thumping in the legislature. The ban on floor-crossing is rich coming from a caucus where only three of their 26 members were elected under the UCP banner.
The ban on using government funds for partisan advertising, however, makes good sense, which is why it is already illegal to do so. Stopping government from announcing policy and funding in the lead-up to an election would be nice, but a practical impossibility given that governments must continue governing whether there is an election coming or not.
One of the more interesting, and telling, parts of the proposed policy is the proposed amendments to the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act. Stealing a line from the 2015 NDP platform, Kenney promises to “get big money out of politics” by making changes to the ways that third-party advertisers (ie. political action committees or PACs) work and are funded.
He would begin by limiting the amount any single donor can contribute to a PAC in any year to $30,000. It’s telling that Kenney does not consider $30,000 a year as “big money.”
What this move would basically do is limit the work of groups like labour unions, who for the most part fund their engagement on political issues by moving existing funds into a designated account. In other words, they would not be able to designate more than $30,000 a year for these activities.
Industry groups like Merit Contractors, Restaurants Canada, and the Motor Dealers Association fund their political activities by raising funds from their member businesses, which would still make it possible for them to raise, and spend, hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on political activities, many of them overtly partisan.
Kenney’s intention here is further clarified by his promise, in the same release, to “close the AFL loophole” by prohibiting any union, corporation or organization that is legally affiliated with a political party to register as a third party advertiser. The Alberta Federation of Labour was instrumental in the founding of the NDP, and remains connected to it through constitutional documents with a mandate of promoting workers’ rights and active participation in politics.
They are one of the only registered third party advertisers with this kind of relationship. Interestingly, the AFL’s third party advertising in this election has been overall less partisan (in the sense of exclusively promoting one party) than that of industry group Merit Contractors. Guess which group would be allowed to continue doing their work under Kenney’s proposed legislation.
Ultimately, most of Kenney’s proposed reforms would do very little to improve democracy in Alberta, but they would be largely harmless. The changes to third-party advertising rules, however, seem explicitly designed to limit the ability of his opponents to participate in public discourse while maintaining the free-spending status quo for his supporters.
It would appear that in the UCP worldview, you only get access to democracy if you support Jason Kenney. Everyone else, including floor-crossers and workers organized into unions, gets silenced.
Ricardo Acuña is executive director of the Parkland Institute, but the opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or any other group with which he is associated.
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